11 February 2011

Wishbone, I-Bone and Innovation

The creator of the "wishbone" offense, Emory Bellard, died yesterday at the age of 83. The NY Times has a lengthy obituary describing Bellard's influence on college football and the lasting impact of the wishbone:
[H]is signature contribution to football came in 1968 as an assistant at the University of Texas.

The Texas team had suffered through three subpar seasons, and the coach, Darrell Royal, seeking a change, asked Bellard to devise an offensive backfield scheme that would include a lead blocker and maximize the effectiveness of the team’s three strong running backs. Bellard came up with a variant of a two-back formation called the veer: the quarterback and the three runners lined up in the shape of a Y, or a wishbone, the fullback right behind the quarterback and two tailbacks split behind them.

From this formation, the quarterback had three options: he could hand the ball to the fullback charging up the middle, or he could fake to the fullback and sprint out to one side or the other, then turn upfield with the ball himself or, if the defense closed in on him, pitch the ball wide to a tailback. The other tailback would cut inside as a blocker.

The various options gave the offense the potential advantage of faking out would-be tacklers without having to block them, and it could help smaller, faster teams overcome bigger, stronger opponents.

Texas tied its first game using the wishbone and lost its second, but it then won 30 games in a row, capturing the national championship in 1969 and sharing it with Nebraska in 1970.

Soon, other teams, including powerhouses like Alabama and Oklahoma, began using the wishbone offense, also known as the triple-option. Many colleges began to tailor their high school recruiting to find shifty, shrewd quarterbacks who could run the triple-option offense and speedy runners who could thrive in it.

It was many years before defenses caught up with the wishbone. From 1969 through 1979, seven national championships were won or shared by wishbone teams. 
Does innovation provide a competitive advantage?  You bet.  The video above describes Alabama's experience in adopting the wishbone in the early 1970s.

The video below shows an innovation to the wishbone -- the I-bone -- and one of the greatest plays (IMHO) in college football history;-)